The Syrian civil war has not only been a point of contention between the United States and Russia, but has also entangled regional powers in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The two countries have typically been strong allies not just politically, but also through culture and society. To start, there are millions of Egyptians living in Saudi Arabia and millions of Saudis living in Egypt. Saudi Arabia has also made efforts to support the ailing Egyptian economy with loans and aid. Since 2013, the Saudi government has given about $25 billion worth of aid to prevent the Egyptian economy from collapsing.
However, Egypt’s recent involvement in the Syrian civil war has tested a relationship that has long served as a basis of stability for both countries. The Egyptian government has been reluctant to approve of Saudi Arabia’s support for Syrian rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In fact, the Egyptian president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, has recently displayed support for a resolution drafted by Russia. The conflict of interest has placed the two longtime allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, against each other, yet they must repudiate their current antagonism to ensure their stability and strength in an increasingly unstable region.
The Syrian conflict has divided the region along sectarian lines, with Sunni powers, usually led by Saudi Arabia, backing failing rebels who fight Assad and Shia forces. Iran, an ally to Assad and rival to Saudi Arabia, is also extensible in funding Syria’s military forces. Yet Egypt’s recent support for a peace accord led by pro-Assad forces has created a more uncertain situation. With el-Sisi’s government offering tacit support to Assad, despite the fact that Egypt is primarily Sunni, Egypt is straining relations with Saudi Arabia.
When Egypt voted for the U.N. Security Council resolution on the war put forth by Russia, which offered support for Assad’s actions, the vote was described as “painful” by Saudi Arabia’s envoy to the U.N. The vote was an example of the rising tension between the two nations. Saudi Arabia’s known priority is to restrict Iranian influence, which it sees as a destabilizing force in the region. It is for this reason that the kingdom has aligned itself with militia forces in Syria and Iraq. Conversely, Egypt’s primary concern is the growth of extremism in the region and disintegration of states. Thus, the Egyptian government views Assad as fit to combat radicalized rebels and terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic State group.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s backlash, Egypt has refused to change its position on the Syrian government. When Saudi Arabian fuel shipments were halted in recent months, Egypt agreed to import oil from Iraq, which has close ties to Iran. In fact, since 2013, the Egyptian government has made an effort to diversify its alliances beyond Saudi Arabia. For example, the Egyptian army receives billions of dollars’ worth of military aid from the United States, but also from Russia.
The country’s shifting focus away from Saudi Arabia will be positive for Egyptians in the long run, yet the country should be careful not to shift away from Saudi Arabia entirely. Considering the long-standing historical ties between the two countries, an unstable region facing revolution and threats from the Islamic State group, burning bridges will benefit no one. Instead, efforts must be maintained to ensure a stable alliance.
Regardless of its stance on Syria, Egypt still needs Saudi Arabia’s support. At the same time, Saudi Arabia equally needs Egypt’s help against Shia powers. If the two countries go forward without a strong alliance and cohesive relationship focused on stability, they will have a hard time finding true balance and security in a region already plagued with crisis and tension. Egypt and Saudi Arabia should acknowledge their shared past in order to create a balance of power that is in both of their favors.
Wasil Rezk is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. This is the final installment of Nile Scope.